IIt seems young people don’t drink alcohol like they used to. And when I say “they”, I probably mean “we”. According to the charity for alcohol education Glassesafter the spike in alcohol consumption during lockdown, there has been a general decline in alcohol consumption: older people are still the most likely to drink, while the least likely to drink are aged 16-24 years, with 26% of this age group being completely abstinent.
This tendency among young British people to avoid alcohol has been waning for some time, but more than a quarter of young people are abstainers? While I’m in no way trying to glorify excessive drinking or diminish the tragic effects of alcoholism, it does represent a lot of sober youth.
When I was young, I, and most people I knew, might as well have taken a sleeping bag to the pub. Nor is it (entirely) about filthy, drunk journalists who were lucky that cameraphones weren’t invented. In my glory days (recollections may vary), the big British pee – sticky, soapy glasses; tables strewn with cigarette ashes; the desperate pleas of an owner calling “Last Orders” – was an unofficial Olympic event.
Now I’ve read that no alcohol is consumed for 29% of pub visits and 37% of restaurant meals, and major brewers are betting on non-alcoholic lagers. It is the dawn of the new temperance.
Perhaps this “sober youth” stuff is overkill: Glastonbury crowds last month seemed fueled by more than just good vibes and bubble tea. And while reality TV shows such as the island of love now strictly restrict alcohol compared to the early drunken days of Big brotherthis seems less what most participants want than a duty of care in dissemination.
A ‘high’ doesn’t have to be alcohol-related anyway: a 2015 study found an increase in young people using ecstasy and LSD and, overall, those in this group of age were the most likely to use drugs.
Still, an abstinence trend is interesting – and there could be many explanations. For example, young people are control freaks who wouldn’t know how to have a good time if it bit them on the hipster backpack (the inescapable vindication for all embittered oldies, but unlikely).
They are smarter, more mature, less repressed than previous generations (they do, after all, have sex without alcohol). They are chic: preferring the European approach to consumption. They’re skinny: In college, the traditional boot camp for alcoholism, they were bullied by student debt, which they’re now paying off. In other words, getting a ride would be a miracle.
Or perhaps this cohort simply prefers to shape their own identities as consumers and hedonists rather than follow in the footsteps of, say, the lads and ladettes of the 1990s: avoiding alcohol just as, with the rise of veganism , they strongly backfired on meat.
Or could there be a sadder, darker gender aspect to this: sober women feeling a little more secure, less vulnerable to predators; trendy men answering that? There has certainly been a loud Puritan agenda against female drinkers over the years.
Likewise, young, working-class drinkers living in Magaluf were regularly denigrated, while Ocado’s middle-aged, middle-class wine cellar brigade was seen as ambitious, until they be exposed as hardened stealth drinkers.
Perhaps some of these factors have fueled this massive detachment of young people from alcohol. Either that or young people think drinking is cheesy, dated and (whisper it) pathetic. I remember images from the 1960s and 1970s of stoned hippies stopping me from smoking drugs: it wasn’t the drugs, it was the hair.
Did the elders full of alcohol disgust the new generations and dissuade them from drinking? Admit it, even without the serious consequences – illness, violence, depression, death – the modern history of alcohol is not pretty. Lairy yuppies with bottled beers with limes stuck in the top. Camden Town Britpoppers face down in ashtrays. Maybe it just took some “overcool” uncle strutting around with his not-funky Wet Leg stuff at a wedding. Who could blame young people for stepping back and thinking, “It’s up to us to save mankind”?
Granted, there isn’t the same peer pressure these days. This “Never trust a bastard who doesn’t drink” thing seems to have fallen apart, when it used to be like a sacred creed; Ethanol-soaked Bible scripture. Which isn’t to say that the British don’t still have a bizarre, confused, tortured relationship with alcohol.
Maybe because it’s not “altered” like class A drugs, you are tricked into taking a definite stance (in or out), like you wouldn’t with something like cocaine. What 26% of the younger generation might say is: no drama, we’re just not interested.
At this point, I feel like I should stand up for the pissed off past generations. For those lucky enough not to be caught in the clutches of alcoholism, the culture of alcohol was not all darkness, or even all sex. It was also about socializing, laughing, bonding, not taking yourself too seriously.
All the things you can do sober, but that doesn’t change the fact that we did it insanely drunk. One thing that’s often overlooked about 1990s boy and ladette culture that I pathetically flouted was how intertwined the sexes were on the level of friendship: for a time, the feeling of equality and camaraderie was new and strong.
Like that, I hardly drink these days. I couldn’t hack hangovers anymore: as I got older, they escalated from bad to terrible until “Chernobyl”. For some, the bar “closes” whether we like it or not. Sober youth, be warned, you could lose your best recovery years.
In fact, I’ve noticed a few heavy drinkers I know getting sober. Could it work in reverse: non-alcoholic Gen Z hitting wine cases in middle age? I do not judge. I don’t envy your hangover.